We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Social Media Blackout

Long-time readers here may recall that I bailed on Facebook in 2012 and Twitter in 2018 after having been quite active on those platforms at various times. In both cases, I found that the time-killing, soul-sucking shrillness, nastiness, deception and profiteering of the sites got to a point where they just made me angry, stupid, slow and tense. And once something that was supposed to fun becomes painful instead, it seems sensible to kick it to the curb. Done and done.

When I registered for the Iceland Writers Retreat earlier this year, they were using a Facebook group to communicate with participants, so I felt obligated to sign up for that, and did. I said “howdy” to a ton of old friends I hadn’t seen for a long time in virtual space once I got there, which was nice, but the ickiness factor of what showed up on my wall quickly made it all feel unpleasant again. So once the Writers Retreat became yet another COVID casualty, it was an easy decision for me to also close out my Facebook account again.

A few days back, a community of fun and creative folks who I regard highly among my digital friends decided to do some live tweet events that were of interest to me, so in the spirit of positive connectivity that feels important now, I activated my Twitter account again to be able to participate in those events. I only followed a few friends, I customized my trends and interests, and I blocked all the words that I loathe seeing online, but my page was still quickly filled with crap every time I looked at it. When I logged on this morning, the “trending now” bar was filled with things like “#PelosiHatesAmerica,” “#DemocratsAreDestroyingAmerica” and other stupid, dangerous, hateful fare. Of both left and right stripes, I will note, to be fair.

So I immediately deactivated my Twitter account again. Life’s just too short and the times are just too tense to be spending time, by choice, getting punched in the face over and over again with the bloodied gloves of hatred and stupidity. I am putting this note here on the blog for those who may have briefly glimpsed me on Facebook and/or Twitter this month and wonder why I am not there anymore. Sorry about that. It wasn’t you, it was me. Well, unless you were posting or propagating that kind of stuff, in which case it was you, and we probably shouldn’t be communicating regularly anyway.

I do appreciate that having a place to commune with distant friends online would be helpful right now, but it can’t be a place where disinformation and destruction are being peddled for profit. Hit me if you know of a good online sandbox that isn’t filled with cat turds. I’ll bring my bucket and shovel.

I’m off to my happy place. Maybe there will be fish.

#smhedia

My friend Kenny (who once made the observation “Centipedes are the spiders of the bathtub” in a perfectly contextual fashion) posed a question on Twitter this morning:

Is there a word for when something or someone stupid gets an outsized amount of news coverage and is getting spread way further than it should have? Could be used to describe Raw Water, Flat Earthers, James Damore, etc.

I pondered Kenny’s question for a while today. My answer? Yes, Kenny, there is such a word, and it is . . .

Let’s break it down . . .

The source of the “media” part of the portmanteau word should be obvious: them what propagate such idiocy widely, for fun and/or profit.

“SMH” is textspeak for “Shaking My Head,” and Urban Dictionary tells us it is “usually used when someone finds something so stupid, no words can do it justice.”

I then take it one level deeper than that. Because it is often written “smh” in posts, my brain actually reads that as a pronounceable word when I see it onscreen — “s’meh” — which I perceive as shorthand for “it’s meh.” And quoting Urban Dictionary again, “meh” means “indifference; used when one simply does not care.”

So . . . we’ve got the media issuing stories so stupid that no words can do them justice, to which most people are indifferent, and simply do not care.

That’s smhedia. Or better yet, let’s hashtag it: #smhedia. Does that work? Can we make it propagate, tagging #smhedia to such things and then moving on quickly when confronted with such idiocy? It probably won’t change anything . . . but it will be fun.

Let’s do this!

(P.S. Note: I post this little piece here about #smhedia today because I coined another word long ago, and didn’t realize how widely it had propagated until it started showing up on albums and in interviews years later. The ground zero for that word was lost in the ancient archives of early ’90s CompuServe, so this time, I figure I’ll put this origin story here, now, and if someone turns it into some #smhedia-worthy profit-engine down the line, I’ll show up for my handout with a date-stamped copy of this blog post).

 

Farewell, Metroland?

For the first time in 38 years, Albany-based alternative newsweekly Metroland will not publish a new edition this week, following the seizure of its offices and property by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. Having just read Paul Grondahl’s interview with Metroland Editor and Publisher Stephen Leon, I’m not seeing any likely scenario where the once vibrant paper is going to be making a return anytime soon in anything approaching its historic editorial and aesthetic configuration.

That’s sad news for me, since I have a deep history with the paper, and I owe Steve and many members of his team a debt of gratitude for allowing me to become part of the Albany cultural community in ways that would have been largely closed to me without my Metroland bylines and connections. While the left-leaning, sometimes sanctimonious paper was certainly not universally loved in and around Albany, it had wide distribution and extensive name recognition, and it was the go-to resource for the region’s cultural calendars for years before the internet rendered it irrelevant.

My history with the paper actually pre-dates my time in Albany. Marcia and I both worked on media and press relations for the Naval Reactors program in Washington, DC in the late ’80s, and Metroland was a thorn in our side for its nagging, niggling coverage of a series of whistle-blower based incidents at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. While I can’t discuss the details or merits of those claims and Metroland‘s coverage thereof, I can tell you that the paper was doing its job from a journalistic standpoint, raising questions and covering angles that the larger daily papers were often missing at the time.

It was my job with Naval Reactors that later brought us to the Capital Region after a stint in Idaho, and through a fortuitous series of personal network connections (thanks, Paul Rapp!) I found myself as one of the new music critics for the paper in 1995 — hot on the heels of a financial meltdown and recovery that ousted the original ownership group and replaced it with Stephen Leon’s team. My first two articles were reviews of records by The Roches and Foetus, and I oscillated between such extremes throughout my time with the paper, eventually branching out into travel writing, interviews, think pieces and other feature work.

I freelanced for Metroland for nearly a year while still working for Naval Reactors, keeping a low profile (beyond my bylines) on both fronts, given the awkward history between my full-time and part-time employer. I rarely went to the Metroland offices during my first year with the paper, which helpfully allowed me to remain largely unrecognized and unknown in the local music community when I started covering it, thereby providing a degree of safe objectivity as I lurked in the shadows at concerts. Even the other Metroland writers had no idea what I looked like or who I was for much of that period, and a former editor once told me she was shocked when she met me, as she expected me to be a leather-garbed, long-haired, heavily pierced rock n’ roll rabble-rouser, based on my writing style and interests.

When I resigned from Federal service in 1996, Steve put me on a steady weekly retainer, which was tremendously helpful as I made the transition from government to nonprofit service. I’m still grateful to him for that key opportunity at a key time. I ended up with over 750 bylines in Metroland between 1995 and 2003, plus probably another couple of hundred pieces that ran without credit, e.g. the “Noteworthy” columns of key upcoming concerts. The first incarnations of my personal website included a lot of these pieces, way back in the days before Metroland itself had much of a web presence. The exposure I gained from my work with the paper directly contributed to my involvement (eventually as on-air host) with Time Warner Cable’s Sounding Board music television show, along with many other freelance writing assignments over the years. It remains a great item on my professional resume.

I stopped reviewing live music for Metroland when I started booking shows at the Chapel + Cultural Center in 2002, as I considered it tacky and unprofessional to fill both roles within the same market. I later asked that my name be removed from Metroland‘s masthead during the early days of the Iraq War, as I was uncomfortable with some of the positions and tone that the paper took with regard to the soldiers, aviators and sailors (and their families) who served at the time, and did not want to imply my approval thereof in any fashion. It was a good run, and I mostly enjoyed it all, except at the very end.

All that being said: even back in 1995, it was something of a running gallows-humor joke among the freelancers that remuneration for our services was going to be neither quick nor efficient, and the lag-time between submission and payment for works often grew to six months or more during my time with the paper. When I was writing every week, this didn’t bother me all that much, since I eventually got to the point where I had a paycheck every couple of weeks — even if it was for work that had run months before. But for those who depended more heavily on these paychecks than I did, it was certainly a burden, and it apparently got worse after I left, when I heard tales of bounced checks and even longer lag times.

I suppose, then, that it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the tax man was treated no better than the creative types who made the paper possible. It’s a slippery slope once you decide to forsake timely payment of obligations, and once you get away with it, it’s a hard habit to break. Still, though, it’s a rotten ending for a business enterprise that made a difference in its own ways. I hope that Steve and the current staff and freelancers (plus their families) will be okay once the dust settles — though I suspect that will be a long, painful process along the way, and that once it’s done, Metroland will either cease to exist, or will become a captive faux alternative arts and culture advertising broadsheet for one of the region’s daily newspapers.

End of an era, either way.

DSM to ORD

Assuming all goes well with final house sale closing tomorrow morning, tonight will be our last night as full-time residents of Des Moines, Iowa. We will be in temporary housing in Chicago until September 15, when we will move into our fabulous new apartment in 340 on the Park in Chicago. Marcia started her new job a couple of weeks ago, and I will be starting mine in late August after a trip to Savannah, Georgia to visit my mother and scout some wintertime properties. (I’m waiting to announce my new gig here until its been officially and formally announced in public by my new employer — but that should be soon, if you’re curious).

I’ve spent about as long in Des Moines as I spent at the Naval Academy, and about twice as long as I spent in Idaho, and I view those three life experiences in the same light: none of them were final destinations, and they weren’t necessarily where I wanted to be at the time, but they were important steps forward toward bigger and better things. Annapolis led to an amazing career at Naval Reactors and to meeting Marcia. Idaho led to Albany, where we happily lived for nearly two decades and raised our only child, and I learned how to be a strong nonprofit executive. Des Moines gave Katelin a great start to her own nascent career and is now leading Marcia and I to Chicago, and we are both very excited about the personal and professional opportunities and experiences ahead of us there.

As I relax and reflect on my last full day as an Iowa resident, I would like to share the following lists of some things I will miss when I leave, and some things I will not miss when I leave. Maybe these will be illustrative and helpful for future transplants to Des Moines. I certainly would have liked to have known about some of them four years ago.

Some Things I Won’t Miss When I Leave Iowa:

  1. The Iowa Caucuses: I’ve recently written at length about this here. At bottom line: I think Iowa’s “First in Nation” status is bad for America, and I do not like watching political candidates behaving badly in my backyard for media attention. Related: State Governor should not be a “for life” position. Enough on both fronts.
  2. Restaurants Being Closed on Sunday: While there are a (very) few eateries that buck this trend, dining out options on Sunday in Des Moines are generally limited to brunches patronized by hungover twenty-somethings. Related: The state of dining in Des Moines is pretty haphazard, even on days other than Sunday. Caveat Emptor.
  3. Big Agriculture: The romantic myth of the family farm is a core part of the cultural narrative in Iowa, but the reality is that most of the State’s big farms are just as much corporate conglomerates as anything else traded on Wall Street. I like to eat, but I don’t like having my electoral interests dominated by agricultural concerns, and I don’t like living in a State that slops hard at the trough of Federal farm subsidies, while begrudging its own more vulnerable citizens the safety net and healthcare support to which they’re entitled. Also, having driven through all 99 of Iowa’s counties, I’ll be okay never seeing a corn field again. Or smelling another industrial hog confinement.
  4. Fascination With Shiny New Things: There are some amazing cultural and historic treasures in Iowa, and it has been dismaying to watch them struggle for resources while half-baked, non-charitable enterprises masquerading as nonprofits hoover up funding because they’re new, shiny, and targetted toward the young professional demographic that local media love and/or managed by the otherwise inexperienced scions of a few privileged Iowa families. Even in the short four years that I’ve been here, I’ve watched several of these shiny new things develop rust and fall apart, wasting funds that could have been better deployed elsewhere. A little more discretion, discipline and taking the long view from funders and the media alike would make a big difference here.
  5. Living in the Wrong American Nation: Marcia grew up in Minnesota, and we quite like it there, so it seemed that Iowa — its immediate neighbor to the South — would be culturally similar enough that it would be an easy transition to live here. But it wasn’t, in more ways than I can cite in a short list like this. A couple of years ago, our sense that Iowa was somehow fundamentally different from Minnesota and Upstate New York (our home for the prior twenty years) was made more clear for us when we read an article on the Eleven Cultural Nations in America today. Iowa is culturally part of The Midlands, and Minnesota and New York are part of Yankeedom. And there’s a much bigger difference there than you might think, trust me. Fortunately, Chicago is also part of Yankeedom. Welcome home.

Some Things I Will Miss When I Leave Iowa:

  1. Katelin: Our daughter has found a great job, a great apartment, and a great boyfriend in Des Moines, and she really has proven the rubric that Iowa’s Capital City is a great place for young professionals to begin their careers. So she’ll be staying here for now as we move on. Fortunately, it’s a short flight or easy drive between our two cities, but we won’t be able to take our lunchtime walks together as frequently as we have for the past couple of years. She is keeping Rosie and The Bumble for us, and I think she considers this a fair trade.
  2. The Salisbury House Library: I have enjoyed my job at Salisbury House, though I have been frustrated by the lack of robust, long-term community support it receives, in large part because of the “Shiny New Things” phenomena noted above. I’m proud that I balanced the long-broken operating budget and helped preserve the House’s future, but it deserves more than just hanging on by the skin of the staff’s collective teeth. While I appreciate all of the House’s elements (architecture, gardens and forests, furnishings, fine art, etc.), I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the Weeks Family’s library and rare documents collections for the past three and half years. I’m not sure that I will ever again have the chance to be so close to so many important cultural treasures, most especially the James Joyce collections that I love so much. What a gift to have held his papers in my own two hands.
  3. Des Moines Farmers Market: I’m sure we will find a farmers market that we like in Chicago, but the May to October market in downtown Des Moines is really something special, one of the places where the real remnants of the small family farms still hold court and offer their wares. Even when we didn’t really need anything, it was always nice to put on our Naval Academy, UAlbany or Minnesota team colors (to combat the overwhelming number of Cyclone and Hawkeye shirts on display) and go walk slowly around the market, having something fresh for breakfast, people watching, and picking up a couple of jars of Juan O’Sullivan’s exceptionally delicious salsa, which I often incorporated into a variety of tasty home-cooked dishes, along with tasty seasonings from Allspice.
  4. 4300 Ashby Avenue: We had a great house on a great street in a great neighborhood in Des Moines. Easy access to both of our offices, a couple of restaurants we liked within walking distance (one of them even open on Sundays!), and a very nice sense of community among a group of neighbors who take great pride in living on “America’s Prettiest Christmas Block.” While my own Christmas decorations would be rated “adequate to credible” at best, it was nice to be part of something that the community valued and celebrated. Plus, our house was built like a freakin’ brick bomb shelter, so it felt solid, rooted, and substantial. I hope the new owners enjoy it as much as we did.

Mopping Up: 2014 in Review

So here we are, December 31, 2014, the last day of the final year of my first half-century. How did it go?

I documented my life in 2014 publicly via 55 blog posts here and at Indie Moines — which I shut down in September, considering it to be a successfully-executed endeavor with nothing more to justify it as a standalone writing outlet for me. I quit Facebook in 2014, and became more active on Twitter. I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary in 2014, reaching a milestone where the days I have spent with Marcia in my life are now more numerous than the days I spent without her. I achieved the aggressive budget that I set for my work place, adding revenue, shrinking expenses, and expanding programs, all at the same time. I traveled to Europe, Florida, San Diego, Las Vegas, New York, Massachusetts, Death Valley, Missouri, Minnesota, Chicago, and Wisconsin, among other places, both within and beyond Iowa’s borders. I spent more time with Katelin in 2014 than in any recent year, too, which was delightful.

Big picture-wise, then, it was a pretty good year on a personal front. Great Jorb There, Universe! Much appreciated! But, of course, if you’re a regular reader of my various websites, then odds are that you’re not here for such macro, big picture stuff, but rather for the micro, list-making, obsessive, nerdy, spread-sheet fueled piffle and tripe in which I specialize. So let’s hurry up and get on with discussing that kind of stuff, shall we? Yes! Huttah!

There’s already been a good amount of list-nerding and spreadsheet-geekery going on here throughout 2014, as follows:

Goodness, that’s a lot of nerd stuff — and I didn’t even mention my large multi-attribute utility model designed to identify the best retirement city in America, or my two college basketball ranking models, or the analysis I used to win my second Fantasy Football title this year. Ahem.

Here, finally, are just a few more lists of the sorts of things I like to count, sort, and order as we prepare to greet 2015 on the morrow, hopefully without hangovers. Enjoy!

Favorite Books of 2014:

  • Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
  • Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick
  • The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes
  • Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone
  • The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall by Steve Hanley
  • Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany by David Stubbs
  • I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman

Favorite Movies of 2014:

  • Frank
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Snowpiercer
  • Under the Skin
  • Birdman
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Interstellar
  • Bad Words

Favorite Blogs:

  • Fifty-Two Weeks of the Fall (I’m obsessive about Mark E. Smith and The Fall, I’m a big fan of pointlessly-masochistic writing projects, and I appreciate honest music criticism without commercial taint. This website delivered on all accounts from the first to the last day of 2014. Bravo!)
  • Figuring. Shit. Out. (Amy Biancolli may well be one of the best writers I’ve ever read in any format: she’s funny, wise, prolific, thoughtful and candid about experiences that most of us cannot imagine, plus she has excellent taste in music and movies, and knows when to cuss and when not to. What’s not to love?)
  • Reyna Eisenstark (The writer used to blog at a certain newspaper that I don’t mention by name anymore, but I liked her prose and content enough to hold my nose at her surroundings, and just focus on her words, while she was there. In 2014, thankfully, she finally moved to her own page. Hooray!)
  • Cumbrian Sky (I first got hooked on Mars Stu when he began documenting Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s adventures on The Road to Endeavour in 2008. His writing style, sense of wonder, eclectic interests, and passion for astronomy — amateur and professional alike — are all brilliant and inspiring).
  • XKCD (Again. Still. Of course. Duh. Randall Munroe’s live coverage of Philae’s landing on Comet Cherry-Gerry was a high-water mark in the ways that science and entertainment can collide online, and that was just one of dozens of sublime moments this year).

Opening paragraph to a rediscovered story . . .

“Stars above, sand below, Amanda waded waist deep through warm waves, enjoying the solitude of the North Carolina beach by night. She was nearly six weeks into her summer sabbatical and had been slowly working her way southward since the spring semester had ended at the New England University where she lectured in comparative literature. Amanda’s summer itinerary had been intentionally amorphous from the start as she was less concerned with where she was going than with what she was leaving: a long-running, long-dysfunctional relationship with a colleague that had finally imploded; a nagging suspicion that she was beginning to treat her students poorly; a boredom with the great works of literature that had once so moved her; a sense of anomie that had become positively strangling as it spread insidiously to touch everything that in turn touched her.”